Through His Fingers
From champion skier to acclaimed composer, Steven Mackey has never lost his rhythm.
Steven Mackey was just 19.
When an injury forced him to give up professional skiing,
a path he had been pursuing for much of his life.
He didn't step on the slopes again for 25 years.
But when he did the same drive that had propelled
his early training took over.
- I start skiing and I see this gate, you know,
it says caution, experts only, three black diamonds warning.
I don't know what possessed me, but I guess went over,
made two turns, fell, my skis come off.
I tumbled down, you know, 500 feet,
who are you Stephen,
you gotta reign it in.
- It was a foolish moment of hubris,
but only a temporary setback.
After a while his muscle memory returned.
- It came back to me.
The reason I fell on that first run
was my weight got too far back
and my quadriceps are not strong enough to pull me back up.
And so I lost it twice.
Then, you know,
it began a whole renewed passion for the sport.
- Mackey is on the bounds between hard work and audacity,
failure and success.
For much of his life,
he's guided as much by emotion as reason.
And he knows that both are vital.
Around the time his teenage injury
pushed him to give up skiing,
another chance encounter, set him on a new path.
- I remember driving around with my older brother
and he had an eight track cassette, eight track tape deck.
You know, we were always putting in music
and he put in Beethoven's last string quartet Opus 1 35
and (indistinct) movement of that
has this sing song, a tune,
and then it hits this it's an F major.
And then it hits this E-flat cause.
(demonstrates singing notes)
- Hits this note. That's the wrongest note.
The bluest note I'd ever heard.
It was like, wow,
these people are writing music for people to listen to.
And they're trying to distill all of life
into a listening experience.
- At the time, Mackey was also playing guitar
in a rock band.
- I was also beginning to tire of, you know,
play the Doobie brothers,
you know, as my band was playing our aspirational originals,
And so it just felt like we were playing music
to get drunk by, to dance to, to seduce by,
to do the laundry, to,
to do, you know, all reasonable things.
But here was music that was meant to
take aluminate the human soul.
And it just, I just like,
I that's what I wanna do.
- In the years since that car ride with Beethoven,
Mackey has channeled that moment of revelation
into a lifelong determination,
to understand music and explore its limits as a composer.
Now, a professor at Princeton with a happy home life
and a worthy house band consisting of his wife
and fellow composer, Sarah Kirkton Snyder,
and their two kids, Dylan and Jasper.
Mackey has won a Grammy award and his compositions
are much performed, but as expected,
it wasn't a straight shot from rock and roll skier
to internationally recognized Ivy league composer.
Mackey decided to venture into classical music at an age
when most musicians already have years of experience.
Still what he lacked in time, he made up for with Verve.
- Yeah, I was very naive.
I went to the head of the music department
at the university of California
where I was a student and said,
I decided I want to be a composer
and I'm going to be a music major.
And he said, well, that sounds good.
We'll have you audition. What instrument do you play?
I say, I play the guitar.
He said, well,
we'll have you site read some things
and play some prepared pieces.
And I said, well, I don't know how to read music.
And he said, he just laughed.
He said, you know, you seem like a nice kid,
but there's just no way at your age that you can do this.
You can't catch up.
I walked out of his office,
looked in the newspaper for classical guitar teachers
and figured that would be the way to do it.
I'll study classical guitar. I have the left hand.
I was, you know, I was a dedicated guitarist.
I mean, I practiced as much as any violinist practiced.
I practiced six, you know,
in the summer when I didn't have to go to school,
I practice six, eight hours a day.
- The commitment paid off.
Mackey graduated Summa Cum Laude,
and continued to dive deeper into the underpinnings
Eventually earning a PhD from Brandeis university,
but academic accolades were never the goal.
Just like that blue note in the Beethoven string quartet,
he was chasing powerful musical moments
and willing to endure whatever it took to get there.
Like the reaction he got when an orchestra finished playing
one of his early pieces,
eating greens at a European music festival.
- Dead silence, then boom, and a couple of people,
bravo, and then a little,
I mean, just like you could hear the individual applause.
I mean, there was no kind of ambient applause
and that it hurt.
- But Mackey didn't dwell on this discouraging response.
On the contrary, it drove him.
- My greatest fear in a way
is not standing for anything
because just being brand, I guess, you know,
that's my greatest fear is just being, yeah,
not gonna hurt anybody, you know.
If I love that so much,
and those people hated it so much,
I must therefore stand for something, you know,
so I'm gonna soldier on
because I really believe in what I'm doing.
And I really liked it.
- What he was doing was going against everything
he had spent the last several years learning.
Mackey's graduate work focused on 12 tone music,
a method of composing that came about
in the early 20th century.
Typically music is written using a scale
with one tone as the focal point
that gives us the key of the composition.
12 tone music pushes against that.
One tone is more important than the other.
Instead a work is composed by putting the 12 tones of the
chromatic scale that used by most
Western musical instruments, into an order
that is the main guide.
- You would lay the notes out in a row
and that's order was supposed to be maintained.
So you don't get to number two before you have number one,
you could have one and two together as a little cord,
and then you can have three and then you can have
four or five, six and seven together as a chord,
and then you can have eight.
So that was the coin of the realm.
When I was in grad school, that was what people were doing.
And in college I had been a physics major, you know,
before I switched to music.
So math, that kind of thing of charts and structures
and that kind of thing came easy to me.
- But once he finished school and had his degree
easy wasn't satisfying.
When Mackey arrived at Princeton, a colleague,
musician and composer, Jim Rondell
learned he had a background in guitar.
He suggested the two of them put together recordings of
improvisations, round, lump, piano,
and Mackey on electric guitar.
- It struck me that all my favorite bits
violate taboos that I learned in grad school, you know,
all the things that really oh, yeah.
That excites me.
Those are all things that I had learned not to do
in grad school.
One of my big influences, the jazz pianist,
man, I'd like to joke of Thelonious finishing the gig.
And he's kind of down in the dumps as his buddy comes in
and says, what's wrong.
And he says, ah, I played all the wrong,
wrong notes tonight, you know,
I'm really interested in the right wrong notes.
In order to have wrong notes,
there has to be a context of rightness,
you know, at the basis,
which is the problem for me of 12 tone music
as a blues guitar player,
12 tone music that then I was so occupied with, you know,
ultimately, you know,
I understood why I wanted to move away from that.
It's because there are no wrong notes in 12 tone music.
- As he searched more and more for the right way
to be wrong, Mackey's, iconoclasm expanded
beyond rebelling against the music
theory genre of the day.
He wrote a pizza delivery into an orchestral score
and incorporated unconventional instruments
into his compositions.
- I wrote a piece for electric guitar and string quartet.
And the review said, combining the electric guitar
and string quartet is a terrible idea
and Mackey does it terribly.
The only good thing about being present at this concert
is the knowledge that this will never happen again.
- But Stephen Mackey doesn't feel
he's a contrarian rebelling
against musical conventions.
Instead he sees himself as part of the lineage that develop
- Classical music, when you look at the tradition,
Mozart, for example,
Mozart is a combination of Austrian folk song,
Turkish, military music, sacred music, Italian folk song,
an Italian opera, 18th century counterpoint.
All of these things put together in his day,
he was a mutt
- And he was also a punk.
- He was, he was a punk, but you know,
it was 40 years after his death.
His music was called classical music.
- Mackey hasn't had to wait quite as long
for similar recognition.
In 2015, the magazine music of America
praised his composition Mnemosyne's Pool
as the first great American symphony of the 21st century.
The piece is about the role of memory and making music,
it's fitting since so much of Mackey's journey
as a musician has been about reconciling and processing
the different paths his life has taken
as a rock and roll guitarist,
a classic composer and academic,
and even his years as a skier.
- There's a real kind of musical connection.
Having been a mobile skier, there's a certain rhythm,
you know, anything went.
And so you just were putting on a show.
And so I didn't have to go through the moguls.
I could go pick up a ball
and that kind of the physicality of that rhythm is in my
- But even as he's carved his own path into music,
Mackey still thinks he's something of an outsider.
- I still feel like I read music as a second language,
Unlike, you know, a cellist,
you put music, printed music in front of a cellist.
And from the beginning, you know,
cellist in the Philadelphia orchestra, they're interpreting,
you know, it's like giving a script to an actor, right?
I'm decoding still.
I cover it up pretty well.
People think that I'm musically literate,
but I'm not a native speaker.
- Still the aim for Steve Mackey was never to take on the
cadence and accent of the native speaker.
Instead, he's finding his own vernacular
creating musical moments
that he or we haven't even imagined yet.
- There's times where the music that kind of just,
I stumbled into has some, you know,
flavor of some human experience.
And I don't, you know,
I don't know what it is yet, but that's my job
as a curator of my own music is to you know,
to find that so that it is as close to being as powerful
as that as possible.
Yeah. I can hear some human experience in there.
Let me get, let me sharpen that up until then.
Now, you know,
I'm three quarters of the way through with the piece.
Now I know what this piece is about.
- Just as in his music,
Stephen Mackey embraces the beauty of harmony
and dissonance in life.
He knows our most uncomfortable moments can also become our
Sometimes stumbling sometimes soaring.
The key Stephen Mackey has learned, is to just keep
- Articulate, with Jim Cotter is made possible
with generous funding from the
Neubauer family foundation.